Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Looking Beyond the Hype: Is the contemporary art market a fraud?

There has been a hailstorm of questions concerning the art market since the global financial bust. As the art market continues to have ups and downs some art collectors, art dealers, as well as the general public have demanded answers concerning the integrity of the art market as a whole. The focus of the criticism has been placed on the ethical practices of some art dealers and collectors. Needless to say, people are starting to examine the art market closer than they ever had before. At the source there is a great deal of hype to be found.

Many of the questions are common-- some were asked before the recent art world financial meltdown. Were prices inflated? Were novice art collectors duped? Did some gallerists sell 'lemon art' knowing that the investment would only ride as long as the art market continued to advance in a positive direction? Did top art collectors foster a market of excessive prices for their own gain? Are some artists to blame? Is the general public to blame? Who is responsible? The questions build up as each week goes by-- frustration creates an environment of outrage.

This atmosphere of doubt offers the perfect time for individuals to make powerful statements concerning their position within the art market. People desire answers-- in this burdened financial climate a strong answer can easily become a battle cry. However, there is also room for the age old ‘my art is better than your art’ rhetoric that tends to creep out of the woodwork whenever the art market is in peril. Needless to say, I think we should all focus on what is really being said when someone speaks of the art market crises-- especially if they are throwing up a finger of blame. An underlining ploy can often rise to the surface when words are examined next to the position of who is saying them.

A perfect example of this can be found in a recent article in The Independent (UK). The Independent article states that David Nahmad-- an influential Monaco-based art dealer -- has lashed out against the contemporary art market. Nahmad suggests that contemporary art is a “fraud“. In the article Nahmad suggests that a handful of art collectors have artificially increased the value for certain artists work and that art dealers willfully duped novice art collectors into buying high priced art knowing that the art would be of little value after an art market bust.

David Nahmad is not foolish for lashing out. After all, he is aware that others support his view. Those who support Nahmad’s opinion feel that the recent collapse of the art market is “proof” that contemporary art is of little value. Needless to say, most of those critics have a vested interest in the same aspect of the art market that Nahmad deals in. In that sense, Nahmad’s statement is business as usual. In a sense, Nahmad is reacting to hype with hype.

The key point of David Nahmad’s criticism can be summed up with one of his statements, that being, “I would never advise my clients to buy contemporary art.”. Nahmad’s criticism aside-- it should be noted that he deals in modern art and feels that art has not advanced since Francis Bacon. In other words, one could say that his criticism against the contemporary art market is simply a ploy to support his own market.

Thus, one could say that by questioning the integrity of the contemporary art market-- a market Nahmad opposes in the first place --he is also placing his own integrity into question. In other words, the worms tend to rise up if you cut open the surface of a dead beaten horse. In that sense Nahmad has not solidified an answer to the art market crises as much as he has played on the fears, paranoia, and anger that is already present.

In any business fear, paranoia, and anger will arise if the foundation of its respected market starts to crumble. Concerning the art market as a whole-- this fear has driven many to compare key figures within the business of art to organized criminals. I have no doubt that David Nahmad played on those fears when making his statements to The Independent-- he won’t be the last to proclaim that the contemporary aspect of the art market is fraudulent-- while proclaiming that his own niche in the art market is the “real deal". True, some of Nahmad's underlining criticism is warranted. That said, his intentions-- as a whole-- should be examined based on the scope of his words as they apply to his business ventures.

With that in mind, I think it is unfair to suggest that gallerists can be compared to mafia lords as some critics have done. After all, unlike a mafia boss a gallerist makes offers that you can refuse. So in that respect, some of the responsibility falls on novice art collectors themselves for having bought into a market that continued to soar without restraint. Buyers in any market can control the market by their choice to purchase or decline, true? Surely David Nahmad would agree with that. Buying on hype alone is not an investment. Keeping up with Charles Saatchi is not an investment. Sometimes a fool needs to be called a fool.

Not everyone agrees with the criticism of David Nahmad. A columnist for The Art Newspaper, Louisa Buck, responded to Nahmad‘s statements. She said, “There is no doubt that the likes of Rothko, Picasso and Matisse are magisterial figures, but the art world has moved on and to dismiss everything after Bacon is utter nonsense.”. I have to agree with Buck’s statement-- especially since it is obvious that David Nahmad is playing on the current art market crises in order to support the aspect of the market he deals in. That said, I do agree that overpricing-- and inflated prices in general --have been a problem in the art market.

I don’t think it is fair for Nahmad to suggest that it has only happened in recent years nor do I think it is fair for him to suggest that contemporary art is the only aspect of the art market that has involved inflated pricing. One could say that hype pricing, if you will, has been going on for several decades now and has involved works of art by living artists as well as artists who have long passed. In that sense, every aspect of the art market needs to be examined-- including the aspect of the art market that David Nahmad holds dear.

In other words, there is no single villain in this scenario. In many ways we all played a role-- from the artist, to the dealer, to the art collector, to the viewing public who lined up to see the art with their own eyes. We were all caught in the hype that energized the art market just before it crashed. In many ways this decadence-- this vehicle of hype-- reflects the same turmoil that has resulted in our faltering economy. Thus, we should question ourselves.

Don’t get me wrong, I do think that the art market should be looked at with a scope. I do think that some artists, dealers, and collectors use unethical means to establish themselves within the public conscience-- and I say that because I feel that art that is honored should be honored due to merit instead of hype or artificially spurred public interest. Art appreciation should not be dictated or established by these means in my opinion. We should be wary of media hype-- especially where art is concerned. After all, we are talking about art-- something that defines our culture and who we are as a people-- not a new line of car or some other updated consumer good that only has value in the here and now.

It is true that mass publicity can establish an artist beyond the level of acclaim that he or she would have otherwise-- we observed that recently with the artist Shepard Fairey due to his association with a public relations firm that had worked with the Obama campaign. It was not by accident that his ’Hope’ poster ended up being a mainstream news phenomenon. Thus, it is no accident that his artwork is now worth far more than it originally had been. True, the media hype was brilliant from a business standpoint-- but I would like to think that art, including the art market itself, is based more on merit than a carefully planned media campaign established to create buzz for an artist. If anything, that is the problem with the art market at this time-- it is a problem that can be found in every aspect of our society.

That said, I do think that novice art collectors as well as the general public need to take a deeper look at exactly what they are praising-- and if their praise stems from a media bombardment which tells us what is 'good' art or 'bad' art. People need to ask if the artwork they view and purchase is truly groundbreaking, if it truly speaks, if it is authentic, and if it can stand alone without a media bombardment of praise. Only then, in my opinion, will the art market-- and any market for that matter-- have a degree of authenticity and true integrity.

Is the Contemporary art market a fraud? I don't think so. However, I do think there is room for change. What are your thoughts?

Link of Interest:

Contemporary art is a fraud, says top dealer -- The Independent http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/art/news/contemporary-art-is-a-fraud-says-top-dealer-1628929.html

Take care, Stay true,

Brian Sherwin
Senior Editor
New York Art Exchange


Frank said...

I love that you point these things out. It offers food for thought. Today a lot of artists are compared to Warhol and his peers. The difference is that Warhol and artists from that time did not use media sensationalism to become prominent members of the art world. They got to where they were because their art could not go unnoticed. Andy had an uphill battle and was loathed by the media at first. He was covered by the press during the early years but they made him out to be an oddball more than a legitimate artist and some people say that is why in later life he was very short with press and did not really care to talk to them. The press praised him once they grasped the value of his art. Fast forward to today and you have artists who appear to sleep in the same bed as the press. They get praise easy and eventually fade after the press is no longer interested (or paid for). Warhol is everlasting. These young pups will be forgotten once they lose their bite. Picasso is a good example too because even during his lackluster years he was able to get continued press because the merit of his work demanded it.Picasso like Warhol did not get instant praise. I think a lot of kids today forget the uphill battle these greats fought.

Anonymous said...

So you are telling us that with a media team and money anyone can become an instant success?

Sid from Facebook. said...

Some good points here. The art market of the last 30 years has taken to many lessons from capitalism and the market tactics associated with capitalism. The irony of it is that most artists and even some dealers are vocal against capitalism. So as you say they get fat rich on creating over exposure. But I think it is sickening because the same people speak out against big money and wasteful spending. In New York there are art dealers who cram together shows speaking out against capitalism and political people like Bush just so they can deposit top dollars in their bank accounts. It is morally and ethically wrong and people should be mad as hell. When art no longer has value but the dollar we are in trouble.

Balhatain said...

Anon said, “So you are telling us that with a media team and money anyone can become an instant success?”

No. I’m saying that it is a possibility and that I think merit should play a larger role rather than hype. If the media focuses on an image often and tells people how they should feel about it there is a chance that the message will be embedded in public opinion. It is no different than how commercials can sway you to eat at a fast food joint or make you think differently of a celebrity or politician.

Sid, said, “When art no longer has value but the dollar we are in trouble.”

Maybe I was not clear. I’m not against artists or art dealers making money off of art. The business side of art is never going to go away. The simple fact is that if there were not a business side to art most of the great art we know of would not have been preserved-- that is a topic for another day.

In my opinion art is worth more than a lot of the junk we buy everyday-- there is no reason for art not to have financial value attached to it. The people who say otherwise are often disgruntled because they have never sold a painting. Just so you know, I see a lot of that on art forums on Myspace and Facebook.

That said, I don’t think it is ethically wrong to place financial value on art, but I do think it is ethically wrong when prices are artificially established by media hype or other tactics that we expect from other types of business.

For example, I don't think we should promote art as we do cars as far as hype is concerned. I just don’t think it meshes well in the long run-- the current market reveals that.

Balhatain said...

Second anon, if you are reading this know that I will not post a comments if the blunt of the comment is overuse of profanity. Especially since the comment is an attack against your former dealer.

Anonymous said...

Media hype is the foundation of contemporary business practice so there is no way to run from it even with art world. The dealers who don't do good for their artist are the one who don't have press. Press is everything it is the social reality you need to wake up to buddy.

PJ said...

The respect for art is failing in the same way that respect for religion is failing. When you take something that is based on emotion and slap price tags all over it the connection is lost. People dislike Christianity today because televangelist made a market out of it. That is why people don’t like contemporary art because people think about money before emotion.

The same idea applies to love because people don’t value sex like they did decades ago because of the porn industry. The emotion has been ripped from faith, love, and art. Welcome to cultural decay my friend.Art reflects society and we live in a devalued place.

You should post this on the Myspace group. Thanks for the bulletin.

Anonymous said...

If contemporary art is a fraud modern art is a sham.

Kathy said...

We do need to be able to discuss contemporary art not as merely an investment. To do this we must be able to recognize and adopt a visual language with which to speak of art.

Recently in my own blog, I've been writing about a need in the local art communities (mine is in Cincinnati) to be sure art organizations have on staff artist, art historians, and educators who can be the caretakers of art's core mission. Relying solely on the Development officers, or marketing professionals, I think has forced the discussion into this debate about monetary value.

And now we are in a position to speak about "hype" and "fraud" instead of form and content.

hyokon said...

I think it is not just art market, but any market where people buy based on other people's, as opposed to one's own, preference, that shows great instability.

When you buy a market primarily as an investment, you are asking whether a painting will be liked by many people. The problem gets even stranger, as those other people ask the same questions.

So, it is possible for a few people who buy based on their own preference, real or pretended, can greatly influence the market.

Sky Pape said...

Thanks for the thoughtful post, Mr. Sherwin. I agree that there are many problems with the art market, and hope that present circumstances will result in a positive correction in the art world, rather than a complete collapse.

You highlight merit, authenticity, and integrity, which I find refreshing. I am one of those artists, and we are out there, who did not benefit at all from the hype of the inflated market, but who has sustained a modest career of quiet successes, built up over many years. Hopefully our hard shells will protect us now, as we continue at the tortoise's pace to do what we've always done: challenge ourselves to make the best art we possibly can, because we cannot do otherwise.

Paul Woods said...

I heard before, love ,love is someone seeing something special in another person that no one else can see.
Well I love Art but not all Art, I could not understand how art was taught at college - and there in lies solution , you can teach appreciation but not everybody teaches it the same way one can agree on conventions but one can also disregard them.
Some of our greatest Artist never followed conventions - they might not have know they existed in the way modern artist are conscious of. Art Dealers are also conscious of these, because of similar schooling .

I trust in money , money will eventually separate the frauds and gamblers from the patrons.This is history in the making we will learn about these times in the future.

Donald Frazell said...

You know my stance, have taken it all my life, and in writing far before the current collapse. Modern Art has survived as it has value, Contemporary art is completely different, and I differ as I consider Bacon one of the founders of contemporary art, along with Duchamp and other silliness.

Modern art is the same as all arts of the past, about all, about being at one with the world, each other, and god. Contemporary art is strictly about the individual, his desires, fears, greed, psychological weakness. Its about the Academys of art finding a way to market it. So anyone can buy a degree and claim to be an artist. Saying anything is art. What do you expect? The Emperor has no clothes, and so I wrote long ago, and it is connected to the creators of this economic disaster, their patrons,.

These people are sayiing what I did over a year ago, but still not getting to the fundamental issue. They are blaming parts of the "system", when it is the system itself that has brought thsi to pass. No true creative Artists is ever a part of a system, it is old and dated as soon as created.

Contemporary Art is dead, it never pursued Arts Purpose, one that has always been and always wil be. It was conceived of Vanity and Greed. It is now as dead as its grandfather the Academic Salon of the 1800s, equally soulless, equally vain, equally decadent.

Rest in Hell Contempt Art

art colegia delenda est

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Imperial Clothing

Darren Daz Cox said...

Fraud? no, but it's all an illusion anyway. In order for the art world to grow you must trust that all art is legitimate, regardless of your personal taste (or common sense).
You must trust that there are people who see genius where you do not.

A said...

If you don't like it don't buy it that's my philosophy and that's what I live buy. If you want to buy investments, I would suggest real estate because at least you can rent it out when your not living in it.